Jan 26, 2018

Reconsidering Franklin Richards’ Versions of the Marvel Universe

Consider the first six-year-old you can think of, who at least knows of you; closely, through mutual acquaintances, from TV. And, ask yourself what you look like through their eyes. If they had to remake you from scratch, your face, your clothes, your habits and social life. Would it be even that much better if they had a little time to interview you first? It’s always going to be a mess that reveals as much about them as about you, right?

Through a Child’s Eyes
Reconsidering Franklin Richards’ Versions of the Marvel Universe
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

In the mid-90s, Marvel turned this thought exercise into a year-long set of stories. They called it Heroes Reborn. The six-year-old was Franklin Richards, son of two of the famous Fantastic Four, and the “you” was that team, Iron Man, Captain America, and a handful of other classic Marvel characters.

By 1996 Marvel was losing money on its comics, as a whole, and emphasizing toys to the point that dead characters were revived based on their toyetic designs (Elektra), while others were visually retooled (Wolverine, the Wasp) to provide more looks to make more toys from. Simultaneously, the publisher was desperately trying to anchor each comic, each cast, into a commercially-friendly status quo. If this seems conflicting and difficult to navigate, it was. Iron Man had recently been killed off and replaced by his teenaged self from the past, Wasp was an orange-skinned bug woman, and they were trying to do nostalgia-fueled callback stories with them. The Incredible Hulk was a very smart, obnoxious know-it-all who wore undersized reading glasses and black t-shirts.

This isn’t as bad as it might sound, but it was enough of a sales and image issue, that they would contract out their primary characters, outside of Spider-Man and the X-Men, to two Image founders, Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, who relaunched them in four monthly books: Iron Man; Fantastic Four; Captain America; and The Avengers. These title heroes, as well as the supervillain and greatest enemy of Franklin’s parents, Dr. Doom, sacrificed their lives, flinging themselves into the extra-dimensional body of a monster, and that body and these characters were psychically and cosmically reworked by young Franklin, into a pocket universe where they would live out modernized, focused versions of their familiar lives.

I happen to think Heroes Reborn, its world, conceit, and actual comics are 85% awesome and at least 90% cool. It was good stuff, which remains for me entirely rereadable. The first four or five issues of Avengers are awkward, yes, and there’s a lull in Captain America, when temporary writer James Robinson decides to make Cap a bigot who hates big city folks for some reason. But, Fantastic Four and Iron Man are beautiful from start to finish. And, Avengers is, even when it’s flawed, pretty cool especially compared to what was being published under that name just months before.

How does Franklin understand the Avengers? The X-Men? Well, for one thing, Hawkeye is Wolverine, according to later stories and judging by the very Wolverine-looking mask he wears. They have pointy masks and sharp things, and they’re the same guy.

While Hawkeye, in normal reality, is deaf and uses hearing aids, in Franklin-world, he hears just fine. What would Franklin know about this dude he barely encounters’ hearing loss?

Touched on in a fantastic Kurt Busiek short, in a later Avengers annual, but not nearly covered enough, I am stuck wondering, what sort of mad horror is it, to have something like your hearing or your actual identity at risk because of a kid? Beyond being danced out like a puppet, your birth, your parents and name are at risk! And, worse, you might still remember, however vaguely, that previous truth.

Reed and Sue, Franklin’s parents in the normal real reality, are in this truncated, pop world, both of them incapable of producing offspring and mildly obsessed with the idea of their son who is not, the missing Franklin Richards. This is the most true-to-life, kid-like concern I have ever seen Franklin weather. That’s not the concern of a sub-Calvin or pastiche-Dennis, a The Kid, but a person.

Franklin’s mother, in his version, is part-owner of casinos. His uncle is sexually propositioned with, “Let me find out why they call you the Thing,” and his own father is offered money to appear in a sex movie.

If Hawkeye seems to have gotten the short stick, and Franklin’s parents are a weird mix of oedipal anxieties and dirty kid jokes, Hellcat and Tigra are conflated into cat-person who sells out her own team. Hellcat and Tigra are both good people. They are heroes. Loyal. Good-natured. But, they are not present, either, to be involved. This version is wholly created from the ideas of their contemporaries and, most significantly, Franklin Richards. This is what Franklin Richards, it seems, must think of them.

Thor is literally a bad copy who gets replaced by a better version for about eight issues of Avengers. Franklin barely knows these people and they are all, within his head, confused. Maybe, Franklin reconsidered his idea of Thor after a while? Maybe he felt guilty or like he’d overdone it?

Captain America, inexplicably, has glowing green blood. Presumably, this is just cool to six-year-old Franklin.

Iron Man, on the other hand, is a total jerk. But, he is also good friends with Bruce Banner, presenting us with Science Bros! years before the Marvel movies (or anywhere else) would try it.

Characters who are barely on Franklin’s periphery are smooshed together. Those, he probably only sees at the same time, because of big superhero gatherings or braintrust conferencing are much closer than they were in reality. His family are eternal, classic versions of themselves as he knows them, except generally hipper and more successful. Family friends?

A minor character in the Marvel Universe or Marvel Comics, Wyatt Wingfoot is the best friend and former college roommate of Franklin’s uncle, and so, here, in this pocket-verse, Wyatt has a much more significant presence.

His other uncle, the Thing, famously went through a dramatic, prolonged transformation from scabby mass to dude covered in handsome rocky plates, but in this universe, he looks like he has for Franklin’s entire life, and his pre-Thing, human form, is nothing like the man who became that rocky monster dude in “real” life.

Heroes Reborn, presented in four thirteen-issue modernizations, ends up telling the meta-story of a child’s anxieties, fears, hopes and misunderstandings. It is the Marvel Universe through from out the mouths of babes, lives, deaths, business and politics as seen through a child’s eyes.

Hydra, a mostly pro-forma anti-American militant group, is in Franklin’s fantastic personal world, a genuinely chilling terrorist cult of disaffected janitors and armchair nihilists. Which, like the Mandarin, its supposed, orientalist head, is merely a facade for the real great villain of the universe.

You know who this is going to be.

Who would the son of two of the Fantastic Four believe, inherently and entirely, is the great evil of the world? The man behind every nightmare? The villain running every evil scheme? He is named way up above as the only non-hero who entered this pocket-verse.

(You can go back up and look.)

His own personal bogeyman, and constant global threat at the best of times, reinvented by a little boy as the villain behind all schemes, the danger in every shadow, behind any closed door. All threats are the man, the constant threat to his home, his family, to him.

The Mandarin is Doctor Doom.

Hydra is merely an arm of Dr. Doom.

Every threat out there: Dr. Doom.

1 comment:

Paul Cornish said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoyed Heroes Reborn Fantastic Four. I had a big Jim Lee FF poster in my wall when I was younger. It's weird how when I read the first issue as a teenager it seemed so adult to me, but reading it now it seems so juvenile (but still lots of fun).
The art in that first issue remains my favourite of all Jim Lee's work.

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